The Well-Ventilated Cage

There’s been a brief algal bloom of discussion on urban blogs on the historical roots of anti-urbanism, particularly Ryan Avent and Stephen Smith. It seems as good a time as any to mention the Brisbane experience. Brisbane is a nineteenth century city, and like most Australian cities, a casual attitude to earlier hunter-gatherer settlement meant it suffered from no shortage of land.

Brisbane has a strikingly sparse density for a city of two million – 918 people per square kilometre. That’s about a tenth of the density of New York city or an eighth of Los Angeles. Though it’s worth noting the city limits are drawn to include more suburbs than many other cities, it’s a pretty obvious feature of the city for even the first-time visitor.

The culture of sprawl certainly runs deep in Brisbane, buying a house on land is the conventional wisdom, and new suburbs have been ever unfolding throughout my life and before, while commute times soar ever upwards. It’s a city that demands a car, but where the ubiquitous suburban blocks are often green. I’ve been in forests overseas with less trees than the Brisbane suburbs. It may be one of the few places to deliver on that part of the garden city vision. Perhaps because of this, I had always assumed that the development pattern was driven solely by cheap land and human nature, despite my own frustration with driving for hours to do anything, or the inconvenience of taxi-ing home to the middle of nowhere after a few drinks.

In fact, much like the US examples Stephen cites, the roots are as much regulatory as organic, and they date back to the Undue Subdivision of Land Prevention Act 1885. This set a minimum lot size of 400 m^2 with a ten metre wide block. The population, though going through a boom, was only a few ten thousands at this time, and it had a huge impact on the development about to occur. The house I am writing this in is on a block of exactly the minimum size and shape specified in the act, even though it was rescinded in 1923. The motivation, as wiki notes, was slum prevention. The cost of not letting people choose smaller houses, if they wanted them, was a city that was too expensive to comprehensively sewer until the 1970s. It was also much hard to keep services like trams economic when cars emerged. Residents were trapped by sprawl, in a well-ventilated cage.

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The First Derivatives of Jane Jacobs

What do these people have in common: a physicist with an interest in anatomy, a pair of libertarian metrophiles, a building architect who inspired a software movement, and a sculptor and writer whose critical model centres around Star Wars?

Pursuing a topic as a layman has its own pleasures. One, fairly widely commented on, is the pleasure of wandering at whim, without a set course or destination. Another, perhaps less noted, or perhaps part of all study, is that you can discover great thinkers by accident, just because everyone you read seems to be talking about them. It is like walking through a dense forest and suddenly realising the rises you have been skirting around are actually the foothills of some great mountain, obscured by the foilage.

I found such a thinker recently, the American writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs. A post by Cam on the physicist above, Geoffrey West, who also modelled metropolitan growth, let the pieces fall into place. (It’s also a great NYT article. This seems to be the key city paper.)

Chris Alexander – the architect – has been an interest for a while, and though he doesn’t reference Jacobs in A Pattern Language, their names now get mentioned together in the same breath. They form part of a humane, localist school of design, which celebrates the dynamism of the city. She was explicitly referenced in Virginia Postrel’s The Future And Its Enemies, which I read some years ago now, without getting that particular hint. The chirpy economic libertarian thread then takes us to Market Urbanism, and the design thread takes us to the wonderful (and anti-corporate) Star Wars Modern.

If you haven’t so far had the pleasure, this Reason interview gives a decent introduction, and the wiki article isn’t bad either.

Interviewer: What should a city be like?
Jane Jacobs: It should be like itself. Every city has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the most dismal things is when you go to a city and it’s like 12 others you’ve seen. That’s not interesting, and it’s not really truthful.

I haven’t read any of her books yet. Time to go climb the mountain.